When you join a settlement with Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), “Residents of the Shacks,” South Africa’s powerful, 50,000 strong shack dwellers movement, you are given land to build a home. You are often given access to electricity and water, the “people’s connection,” which is bypassed electricity and water from resources provided to the non-poor. You are also expected to join the struggle.
N’dabo, a young leader with AbM who lives in and is the AbM Chairperson of a settlement called Cato Crest, told me that one of the first things that new members go through is an education process where they learn about why they are poor. The struggle of AbM is not simply to provide people housing, but to overcome a system that makes people poor and denies them basic human rights like housing.
Another young AbM leader explained to me that the primary thing Abahlali teaches its members about is humanity. “Land, housing, and Dignity” is their motto.
The struggle for land is a way to affirm the dignity of people in a society that discards and inflicts violence on those who are poor. Abahlali doesn’t like to use the word ‘poor,’ but rather ‘impoverished,’ to emphasize the reality that they have been made poor by a system that devalues life.
This past week I had the opportunity to visit AbM in Durban, South Africa along with an international delegation of social movements. The visit was organized by the Network of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCRnet) as part of their efforts to bring diverse struggles of the poor and dispossessed together in collective action and campaigning. Two of our days were spent visiting AbM branches.
I witnessed the courage of the people in Enkanini (“place of resistance”) whose leaders recently blockaded the road to demand that the power be restored to their settlement. We also visited Ekukhanyeni (“place of light”), renamed after the settlements was demolished and rebuilt. In Ekukhanyeni we saw the bullet holes on a container store, evidence of the recent assassination of Ekukhanyeni‘s chairperson, S’fiso. In each settlement we were greeted in song by dozens of members. Their songs, sung in unity and with great pride, told of AbM’s situation and struggle: “We have no money / We have no jobs.”
Members of AbM have had their homes repeatedly demolished by the municipal government’s Land Invasion Units and have faced ongoing intimidation, violence and even death from members and agents of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC.
Leaders in the Kairos Center network have known the leaders of AbM for many years. In 2009 we studied together at our West Virginia leadership school. We have supported and learned from the their struggle and we have been inspired by the spirit and strength that they have discovered through their fight.
The growing movement of the poor in the United States, guided most recently by the hopeful breakthroughs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has much to learn from Abahlali baseMjondolo. As our movement in the U.S. grows, our relationship with the poor in South Africa and all over the world must continue to deepen and expand. The forces that violate life and land are global and therefore so must be our resistance to them. Only by coming together will we stop them.
Amandla — “Power”!
Awethu — “is ours”!